Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament

Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible

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"[A] very welcome contribution. . . . I recommend this volume enthusiastically to all who want to read and understand the Old Testament as it was originally intended to be read and understood."--Ronald Youngblood, Near Eastern Archaeological Society Bulletin
 
This volume provides a thoughtful introduction to the literature of the ancient Near East and a well-considered apology for its importance to exegetical work. John Walton suggests that there are three important roles comparative studies can play in biblical interpretation: critical analysis, defense of the biblical text, and exegesis. He focuses particularly on the third aspect and its importance for preventing misinterpretation through the imposition of modern worldviews.

In the main body of the text, Walton offers a thoughtful introduction to ancient Near Eastern literature and the "common cognitive environment" that it provides for understanding the world of ancient Israel. After surveying types of literature, he considers the perspectives they offer on beliefs about gods, religion, the cosmos, people, and history. Throughout his study, helpful comparative sidebars focus on Old Testament interpretation to illumine the continuities and discontinuities between the Israelites and their neighbors.

This study provides an excellent introduction to the field of comparative studies and will be an important guide for students, scholars, and clergy who want to make use of extrabiblical resources to enrich their understanding of ancient Israel and its scriptures.


Endorsements

"Comparisons between the culture of biblical Israel and the other cultures of the ancient Near East have long been a fundamental part of biblical scholarship, but more often than not, they have been presented in piecemeal, isolated fashion. In his new book, John Walton offers a much broader reach, giving us arguably the most extensive review of these cultural comparisons now available together with a serious meditation on what the enterprise of cultural comparison is all about in biblical study. One may not always agree with his views, but invariably one will come away challenged to rethink the purpose and value of such comparisons for understanding the Hebrew Bible and its world."--Peter B. Machinist, Hancock Professor of Hebrew and Other Oriental Languages, Harvard University

"This book is a must read for serious students of the Old Testament. John Walton has employed his extensive background and experience to write this excellent survey of the interface between the ancient Near East and Israel. His introductory chapter on comparative studies sets the groundwork for the student to understand the 'Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible,' as he subtitles his book. I especially appreciate his sidebars on 'Comparative Exploration,' which enable readers to 'zero in' on the comparative topic of their choice relatively easily. The book is thoroughly readable yet very scholarly. Thus, beginning students, seminarians, and the interested public will find gold mines of conceptual information in this excellent work. It provides a very useful resource for comparative studies."--Mark W. Chavalas, professor of history, University of Wisconsin-La Crosse

"John Walton has produced an important and useful guide to entering into some of the major worldviews and value systems found in ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Israel. As a unique contribution to the study of that era, his work both introduces readers to this thought world and bridges the gaps between ancient Near Eastern texts and the perspectives of the Bible. Walton's engaging style makes this an ideal introductory text for these important areas of Bible backgrounds."--Richard S. Hess, professor of Old Testament and Semitic languages, Denver Seminary

"'Do you understand what you read?' Philip the evangelist's question lies behind John Walton's fine exploration of the concepts of the Old Testament world. As no other author has done, he penetrates beyond the simple comparisons often made to bring back intelligence about the contexts and constitution of that ancient world, stressing the ideas Israel and its contemporaries held in common--such as 'deity is on the inside, not the outside' of life--and discussing accounts of creation, views of history and of the future. Yet Walton repeatedly demonstrates how Israel's faith was distinct, its God revealing his will by writing his law on his people's hearts, a metaphor from divination implying that they reveal his law to others. That's one of many cases where interpretation gains from 'comparative exploration.' Others warn of the danger in carelessly imposing a modern worldview on texts such as Genesis 1. This book deserves the attention of all serious Bible teachers and students."--Alan R. Millard, University of Liverpool


The Author

  1. John H. Walton

    John H. Walton

    John H. Walton (PhD, Hebrew Union College) is professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College. He speaks extensively on reading the Old Testament in its ancient context and is the author or editor of numerous books, including The Lost World of Genesis...

    Continue reading about John H. Walton

Reviews

"Throughout the book the author has included excellent side-bar sections offset in shaded boxes that further illuminate related ideas and concepts. These often contain some of the best and most interesting observations of the material if you are already somewhat familiar with the subject. Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament provides a solid comparative study of the various literature from the ancient near east showing both commonalities and differences with the beliefs of the nation of Israel. The book clearly sets the culture of Israel in the Old Testament times alongside those of its neighbors and allows the reader to better understand the mindset of the time. . . . Highly recommended."--Harold McFarland, Midwest Book Review

"Walton has produced a comprehensive comparative study of the cultural worlds of ancient Israel and neighboring nations of the ancient Near East. . . . His treatment of aspects of religion, perceptions of the cosmos, and anthropological understandings reveal his skill as a scholar as well as a teacher. This very readable book is written for graduate students, teachers, and adults with a good grasp of biblical background. It is highly recommended for such a readership."--Dianne Bergant, CSA, Bible Today

"[Walton] has distinguished himself as an author in the field of Old Testament studies generally and in research on the Old Testament in its ancient historical, religious, literary and cultural contexts specifically. . . . [This volume] is yet another addition to the author's long list of helpful studies on the relationship of the OT to its ancient Near Eastern contexts. . . . The sidebars scattered strategically throughout . . . are used by the author to highlight what he considers to be important emphases, and some of his most trenchant and memorable statements are found in them. . . . The author has an easygoing style and facility with words. Figures and tables throughout are clear and concise. . . . The bibliography is superb and current. . . . [A] very welcome contribution. . . . I recommend this volume enthusiastically to all who want to read and understand the Old Testament as it was originally intended to be read and understood: in its natural, ancient, eastern environment, not with an artificial, modern, western mindset."--Ronald Youngblood, Near Eastern Archaeological Society Bulletin

"Walton is without question one of the preeminent evangelical ANE scholars in America. . . . What I have always appreciated about Walton is his sensitivity to the fact that our study of the ANE actually does/should affect how we look at Scripture. Although the focus of this book is a description of the ANE world (itself written in an accessible style and a wonderful contribution to a student's library), Walton spends a fair amount of time discussing how a study of the ANE relates to the OT. . . . I recommend this book warmly to an evangelical audience. . . . There are a number of extremely important and interesting issues that Walton raises, not only in the body of the book, but in the Comparative Exploration sections. . . . Walton has provided a very concise and accessible accounting of the world in which the OT arose. This will prove to be an extremely valuable resource for seminary and graduate school students as a primer of sorts for the essentials of ANE thought. . . . [He] is well-suited for boiling down complex issues for consumption for non-specialists. Moreover, Walton is to be applauded for not only his willingness but his commitment to engaging how our understanding of the ANE affects our understanding of the OT. . . . There is, in my opinion, no one better suited in the evangelical world to bring the ANE and OT worlds into conversation with each other and to make those insights available to the popular evangelical world. . . . Theologians would benefit from keeping Walton's book on their desks and opening it once in a while before lecturing on the doctrine of Scripture."--Peter Enns, peterennsonline.com

"[Walton] demonstrates the power of his encyclopaedic learning by offering a book on how a comparative study of, say, ancient Near Eastern prophetic texts, or an analysis of ancient Near Eastern notions about the dead, shed light on the biblical text. . . . Armed with [this study], one can solve almost any problem in the field of the comparative study of OT texts. The author is . . . to be congratulated on his fine achievement."--International Review of Biblical Studies

"[This volume] contains a great deal of useful information in an easily accessible format. These features make it handy for use as a research guide. . . . The up-to-date bibliography and well-organized contents make it a useful volume to keep on one's library shelf and pull out to review, especially for Bible studies regarding the Hebrew Bible."--Ceci Gray, Trinity Seminary Review

"Walton provides a path to greater understanding of how culture develops, expands, and interacts in the ancient world. . . . [This] handbook . . . serves best as a reference work. . . . The reader often is assisted by embedded side-bar features . . . that give the author and the reader the opportunity to explore in more depth topics that may be tangential to the discussion. Overall, this method of presentation is helpful . . . and it does require some effort, but then that is what Walton hopes will result--greater attention to the complex and foreign world of ancient Israel."--Victor H. Matthews, Interpretation

"It is extremely difficult to do justice to this exceedingly useful and interesting volume which is so vast in scope and precise in detailed augmentation as it argues its way through the complexities of Near Eastern thought. Here Walton displays an intransigent skill in total commitment as he utilizes to the full his ancient sources revealing to his readers vistas both clarifying of the Hebrew scriptures and informative of Pagan imaginative thinking. Indeed, reading this one book allows for a superb opportunity to enter into the enveloping unavoidable sense of tragedy pervading the intellect of these long lost and forgotten ages, and one which the Hebrew thinkers confronted in depth as they increased the resolution of ethics above metaphysic and ritualistic magic. All this Walton provides: the cultural background of perplexed humanity which makes this book relevant to our contemporary situation. . . . Here therefore is a presentation of Near Eastern thought which whilst accessing Mesopotamian and Egyptian texts actually liberates the Hebrew scriptures from the negative connotations of nineteenth century criticism."--John Appleton, Theological Book Review

"Walton has provided an excellent, easily accessible handbook for those seeking to study the Hebrew Bible in its ancient Near Eastern context. He successfully surveys and discusses appropriate parallels and challenges the reader to enter the mind of the ancients before seeking to interpret their literature. . . . The greatest strength of Walton's achievement is not innovation (though the work is hardly void of fresh insight! . . . ) but collation: in a single volume he provides an introduction to the comparative method, an overview of relevant texts and helpful discussions, all clearly presented. This text would serve as an appropriate companion for guided readings in ANET or COS for any university or seminary course on ancient Near Eastern literature. Other highlights are the valuable 'comparative exploration' sidebars that focus on specific aspects of connection between the Hebrew Bible and the ancient Near East--these alone are worth the purchase price. . . . Walton has done a great service for the field [of] biblical studies in providing this comprehensive reference companion. It will no doubt be a welcome addition to any classroom or library and plays an important role in revivifying the value of the comparative method for addressing both similarities and differences among the conceptual spheres of ancient Israel and her neighbours."--Jonathan S. Greer, Toronto Journal of Theology

"Walton's book is a welcome introduction to the literature of the ancient Near East and to the thought world of the Bible. . . . After offering a thoughtful introduction to comparative studies . . . he presents an annotated summary of the primary literature of the ancient Near East. . . . Each reference is accompanied by references to critical editions and frequent footnotes on articles relating to the texts. It is a treasure trove of scholarly material that will prove to be very useful. The remaining chapters offer a unique odyssey into the world of the ancient Near East. . . . Walton's text includes multiple indexes, an extensive bibliography, and an appendix with an annotated list of thirty of the most significant gods and goddesses of the ancient Near East. The pictures are better than most I have seen in other texts on the OT. . . . Walton argues convincingly that modern means of literary, historical, and textual analysis of the Bible must be informed by comparative studies."--William L. Lyons, Catholic Biblical Quarterly

"This volume is well worth the endeavor. . . . The writer's style is inviting for students, because an effort is made to clarify concepts without overly simplifying them. . . . While the book is designed for students and nonspecialists, the attempt to synthesize the material in such a thorough fashion should intrigue scholars."--Tammi J. Schneider, Religious Studies Review

"The novelty of Walton's book is the attempt to go beyond mere comparison of individual texts to penetrating the 'cognitive environment' of the ANE. . . . [Walton] must be sufficiently comprehensive in his analysis of ANE texts and, at the same time, sufficiently comprehensible for the beginning student and seminarian, as well as for the academic, whom he wishes to address. Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament achieves these twin objectives admirably well. . . . The bulk of the book . . . is dedicated to the examination of texts with a view to ascertaining their underlying worldviews, and to consider how these inform our understanding of the OT. . . . Working through these sections one becomes aware of being under the expert tutelage of a master-teacher. . . . One of the most valuable features of the book to the OT student is the presentation of about 40 sidebars titled 'Comparative Exploration' by which the author compares the specific concept or practice in the OT with what was most likely the 'cognitive environment' in which it was recorded."--Ivor Poobalan, Trinity Journal

"Curious readers these days can find with relative ease texts translated and untranslated from the ancient Near East and information about the ancient world. . . . Unfamiliar names of people, places, items, and deities, combined with unfamiliar activities, however, may soon accumulate as mere curiosities and without yielding much enlightenment. They need to be sorted, explained, and interpreted. Walton has done this well, with a careful eye on both the biblical and extrabiblical materials, providing information and orientation for readers from his long and growing familiarity with ancient Near Eastern remnants of all sorts. . . . Photos, tables, and highlighted sections add to the book's appeal and usefulness. . . . [The book is] full of valuable information and insights."--Dorian G. Coover Cox, Bibliotheca Sacra

"Walton has provided teachers and students alike an accessible handbook for the comparative study of the OT. . . . [This book] not only seeks to introduce texts, but to use them interactively with the OT to show the uniqueness of the OT conceptual world. For these purposes, Walton's book may be the best and most accessible handbook available, and it would certainly serve well as either a textbook or as supplementary reading for courses in OT or on ancient Israel."--Ralph K. Hawkins, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society